Ocean Colour Scene. The critics hate them and nobody seems to know why. When people dismiss this band, they'll say that it's because they rely on the past too much and they're stuck in the '60s. Meanwhile artists like Miles Kane and Jake Bugg turn to retro rock for their inspiration and are praised for it.
But don't worry, you're not about to read another ignorant review from a clueless critic. You're not about to read the biased words of a massive superfan either, but having heard a lot of their music, there are songs of theirs that I like and songs that I don't. I understand enough about OCS to give a fair overview of their latest album.
Like most people, I discovered them in 1996 with 'Moseley Shoals', an album I still regard as one of the best of the decade. The 1997 follow up 'Marchin' Already' was another fine record, and boasted more classic singles. Afterwards came 1999's 'One From The Modern', but with the Britpop boom over, the band seemed rather out of step with things. The albums that followed certainly weren't as strong, although each one of them had their moments. In fact if you were to take the three best songs from each of the LPs they made in between 2001 and 2010, you'd have enough to compile a very strong collection of tracks. Maybe following those hit albums was hard, and perhaps they've been trying a bit too hard or overthinking things at times. After the original four piece lost a member in 2005, they recruited two more instead, forming the line up that wrote and recorded the last two records. For the recording of this album they return as the core three piece.
Perhaps with five people in the band there was too much going on, and with everyone in the group writing songs, sense of direction was perhaps being lost. Maybe these three long-term musical companions have reconnected with each other in a way that has had a positive effect on the songs this time round. It's a slightly more diverse record than previous efforts, yet the vast majority still fits together nicely as a whole, flowing somewhat smoother than their previous five albums. On 'Painting' they sound more relaxed, and certainly there seems to be more confidence. They've kept it short and mostly free of excess too. Frontman Simon Fowler has recently been developing his folk influences with his other band Merrymouth, while guitarist Steve Cradock's solo albums seem to have lent 'Painting' some of its lightly psychedelic arrangements. Their other projects seem to have given them a better understanding of what material suits OCS and what stuff they should keep for their other musical outlets.
Ushering the record in is 'We Don't Look In The Mirror', characterised by a bright percussion loop, piano, mellotron, bass and an unmistakably English vocal that's topped with some lovely harmonies. Even if it didn't have the birdsong in the background, it would still evoke the sensation of waking up on a beautiful spring morning. Bouncy, breezy and utterly addictive, 'Painting''s title track is going to stick in your head for some time, while 'Goodbye Old Town' is rather like The Who with a banjo. Not a bad thing actually, and it will sound great on the stereo when you're cruising down an open road in the summertime. The lively northern soul of 'Doodle Book' recalls their 1997 classic 'Traveller's Tune', and the brief dub reggae interlude in the middle is most unexpected.
Featuring some of Cradock's most satisfying guitar work in years, 'If God Made Everyone' is a 'Sympathy For The Devil'-esque earworm that addresses the evil behind the Norwegian mass murders, while 'Weekend''s sorrowful elegance provides a smart heartbreaker worthy of Bacharach.
Frustrating that after such a great first half, the flow of the album has to be disrupted by 'Professor Perplexity', a needless rip off of Public Image Ltd's 'This Is Not A Love Song' that occasionally drifts into some brief and rather ill-fitting psychedelic interludes. Surely at some point one of them must have stood up and said to the others "I don't think we can use this on the album, it just sounds too much like 'This Is Not A Love Song...'"
Short, minimal and mournful, 'George's Tower' acts as a nice prelude to 'I Don't Want To Leave England''s attractive Kinks-esque melancholy, and afterwards 'The Winning Side' deals with the tragedies of war, poignantly sung from the viewpoint of a grieving parent mourning the loss of their son. 'Mistaken Identity' again proves that Fowler is great at coming up with those supersized melodies that pull at your heartstrings, while 'The Union''s simple verses carry into a hazy, floaty chorus before treating us to a guitar solo that sounds like it's escaped from the new Suede record.
The title and tone of 'The New Torch Song' suggests that they intended it to be the album's big anthem, but it fails to hit the heights it wants to. But it's one of only two under-par songs on this otherwise excellent LP. It ends with the subtle and beautifully understated 'Here Comes The Dawning Day' where Fowler's plaintive vocal is accompanied only by acoustic guitar. And it's stunning.
Since we live in the iPod age, and because this album is only available on CD or mp3, I advise that you buy 'Painting' and remove the record's two weak moments from the tracklisting. Quality over quantity. Even though excluding them would make the 38 minute running time even shorter, it would make for a far more satisfying record overall. If you were to remove those tracks and swap 'If God Made Everyone' and 'Weekend' around to break up the slower songs, then the resulting album would score a 4.5 out of 5. Less would indeed be more, but even so 'Painting' still rates as an impressive 4 out of 5 due to 12 out of the 14 tracks being as great as they are.
We're probably never going to hear Ocean Colour Scene beat 'Moseley Shoals', but the vast majority of this record is certainly a return to form.
Buy 'Painting' HERE.